The Use of Charitable Food Assistance Among Low-Income Households in the United States

Published:September 18, 2020DOI:



      About 11% of US households are food insecure, and many of those households seek charitable food assistance (CFA). However, little is understood about the nutritional composition of the diets of households receiving CFA, or the relationship between CFA and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) usage among low-income households.


      The aim of the study was to compare the nutritional quality of foods obtained by CFA clients to those of similar nonclients. Furthermore, the study examined the timing of CFA use relative to the timing of SNAP use among CFA clients during the week.


      Analyses were conducted using 2012 US Department of Agriculture National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS), which collected data for 4826 households’ food acquisitions during a 7-day survey week. Sixty-seven households reported using CFAs during the survey week.

      Main outcomes measure

      The nutritional quality of food was measured by the ratios between food acquisition quantities and the US Department of Agriculture Thrifty Food Plan consumption recommendations. The date of SNAP use was compared with that of CFA use for CFA clients who were also SNAP recipients.

      Statistical analyses performed

      Propensity score matching was utilized to construct a matching sample of CFA clients and nonclients. T tests were used to compare the means of variables.


      CFA clients were more likely to be food insecure (48% vs 28%, P < .001) and less likely to have access to a car (61.2% vs 84.8%, P < .001) than CFA nonclients. CFAs represent an important source of foods for CFA clients, taking up 28% of their total food at home acquisitions. CFA clients obtained more nonstarchy vegetables than matched nonclients. Furthermore, among the 45% of CFA clients who also participated in SNAP, the majority (52.4%) of them used SNAP benefits within 10 days of SNAP benefits distribution while most (67.9%) of those households used CFAs starting on day 11 or later after SNAP benefits were allocated.


      CFAs provide a substantial portion of the diets of their clients and, in particular, for foods that constitute components of healthy diets. For the proportion of CFA clients who received SNAP, this study finds evidence that CFA clients relied more on CFAs when their SNAP benefits were likely to run low.


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      L. Fan is an assistant professor, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.


      C. Gundersen is a professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL.


      K. Baylis is a professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL.


      M. Saksena is an economist, Office of the Chief Economist, US Patent and Trademark Office, Alexandria, VA.